With Marc Staal returning to the line-up tonight, speculation will begin (again) as to whether the timing of his return is right, and whether Staal will ever be able to return to his previous best. In addition to the obvious chase for a playoff spot, and the continued (prolonged) acclimatisation to the new coaching staff, the Rangers will need to treat the second half of the season as an audition of sorts for Marc Staal.
There’s no question that Staal – at his best – is an elite All Star calibre defenseman, capable of shutting down the league’s best scorers, while also contributing offensively. However there are a boat load of questions regarding his durability, the task of re-projecting his long-term potential, and subsequently measuring his relative importance to the Rangers. In addition, the club needs to consider the financial risks that come with committing to such an injury prone and potentially concussion-vulnerable player.
The Rangers defense is potentially facing a summer of drastic change, with the increasingly likely departure of Michael Del Zotto, the inconsistent form of Anton Stralman and John Moore, and the regression of Dan Girardi. In terms of worst case scenarios, Ryan McDonagh may be the only long-term fixture on the Rangers blue line.
The Rangers know what kind of player they have in Dylan McIlrath – assuming he develops appropriately – and he may get a longer look this year or next, but the Rangers need to make significant decisions on the current roster. Connor Allen has impressed pre-season, in the AHL, and in his NHL debut. He could very well be a permanent Ranger. But so much of the eventual composition of the unit relies on Staal’s ability to return effectively.
The Rangers are financially committed to Staal at a good value of $3.875 million. The uncertainty around his future does raise questions as to whether the Rangers should look to commit to the their Staal family representative beyond ‘14-‘15. After strong defensive play and seasons of 27 and 29 points between 2009-2011, Staal has played just 97 games since and scored just 19 points. Staal’s defense has also been less than what fans had come to expect, but the sub-par production is undeniably tied to his health.
The remaining 41 games of the season (after the Florida game) are a crucial juncture for both Staal and the Rangers. If Staal is ever to get back to his All Star form and stay healthy, he should help the Rangers find some consistency on the blue line. The Rangers will hope Staal can prove he can come back and stay back. If he can’t, then Staal may not be a Ranger for much longer. The half season audition begins tonight.